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John Tizard: Festive public procurement crackers

Monday December 17th, 2018

Even public sector procurement officials will be taking some time off over the next couple of weeks to sit around their Christmas trees, perhaps with a glass in their hands. Like all public sector officials, they deserve a rest and time to recharge.

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John Tizard

I hope that there will be lots of rest, good food and drink, and enjoyable family time for everyone.

The coming year is going to be even more challenging as austerity bites ever deeper, demand for services grows, the uncertainty of Brexit pervades everything, and public service workers continue to want to maximise impact for communities and all service users.

Therefore, as they pull their crackers public procurement officials might wish to take a few minutes to think how they can maximise their contribution to well-being in 2019.

There is much that they could think about, and most officials I know are already thinking hard. So, what might be worth some festive thinking? My ten topical questions to be pondered are:

First: how we can return strategic commissioning to what it was always intended to be – that is, consulting stakeholders, identifying need, identifying options for addressing that need and allocating resources (but not automatically reverting to competitive procurement)? Procurement is only one of many means of implementing strategic commissioning objectives.

Second: how can we ensure that procurement, when invoked, is not over-bureaucratic and disproportionate to the sums of money and risks involved? An associated question would be: how can we ensure that SMEs, social enterprises and charities can bid?

Third: how can we persuade public sector leaders to move away from competitive tendering when seeking to work with charities and local community groups, and adopt a relational partnership approach with grants aid replacing complex payment-by-results arrangements?

Fourth: how can public bodies, especially local authorities and their public sector partners, use public procurement to build local community wealth and build on the experience in Preston and elsewhere?

Fifth: how can we align public procurement with wider public policy objectives and the securing of social and public value – and in so doing demonstrate that this is not inconsistent with value for money (while buying the cheapest usually is)?

Sixth: how we can assess potential contracts holistically, taking into account their impact on other public sector budgets, employment terms and conditions, local spending and democratic accountability – not simply the bottom line of the procuring body/department?

Seventh: how can we challenge the default option of outsourcing public services and instead promote in-sourcing; and review existing contracts to ensure that they are delivering value for money and are in the public interest?

Eighth: how does the public sector procurement profession develop or acquire more commercial competency and nous, including understanding the commercial mindset of potential bidders and contractors?

Ninth: how does the public sector procurement profession step up and persuade public sector political and executive leaders that they can and should be encouraged to contribute to strategic organisational decisions and not be regarded as junior technical specialists?

Tenth: how can I, as a public procurement official knowing what the coming challenges are going to be, enjoy a relaxing and restful festive break?

Although all these issues require thought and deliberation my advice would be to focus primarily on the tenth, but be ready to address the remaining nine once rested and recharged.

My final words are to wish all those involved in public procurement a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

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